The first time then newbie writer (and my coauthor!) Dhonielle Clayton met author Scott Westerfeld, she blushed and swooned, fanning herself like an old auntie drinking sweet tea on the porch, and I was floored—I’d never seen her react that way to another human.
“He’s always been one of my favorite authors,” Dhonielle says, “and now that I know him, one of my favorite people, too!”
We caught up with Dhonielle and Scott to talk about creating, collaborating, and, of course, the concept—and cost—of beauty.
Scott Westerfeld: Congratulations on The Belles! Tell us a bit about how the book (and series) came about.
Dhonielle Clayton: I’ve said this before, but the Uglies is one of my favorite series of all time, and I love the themes you explore in it.
When I write, I tend to focus on something—a question or issue—that bothers me. As a teen, I used to literally cut out body parts from magazines and try to create the perfect girl, the one I wanted to be—this person’s eyes, that person’s hair, this mouth, this body type. I was obsessed with the idea of what makes someone beautiful. How is it defined? How does one access it? At what price?
I saw you poking at that question in the Uglies series, and it got me thinking about how far someone would go to attain that concept of beauty—would they change themselves to their very bones, if they could? That’s how The Belles was born.
SW: I love the way the titles play with each other—”Belles” and “Uglies” are literal opposites. And it’s also cool how magic can be an opposite of technology.
What I mean is, in Uglies, everyone gets surgery; it’s off-the-shelf technology. But in The Belles, your character Camellia is one of the few people in the world who can wield beauty magic. As she says in chapter one, “I control beauty.” That gives her a lot of responsibility—the whole world is watching her from the very first pages! This puts a huge weight on her, one she can’t can run away from (in the way that Tally repeatedly does). The Belles puts you right at the center of those issues of power.
DC: Is that how Uglies series came about? Were you thinking about the themes of power first?
SW: I usually start with setting, and what that setting wants. The society in Uglies has its own agenda—conformity. So the setting is like a character in conflict with my protagonists, who refuse to give their city what it wants.
That idea came from a conflict between a real city and a friend of mine. He moved to Los Angeles, and was told by his new dentist that he should get his “New York teeth” fixed. Should he change himself to fit in? Or fight to keep his own face?
Not that Uglies is an out-of-the-blue idea. It stands on the shoulders of many sci-fi texts about the beauty myth, like Charles Beaumont’s story, “The Beautiful People” (on which The Twilight Zone‘s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” is based).
Setting is also really important for The Belles, which takes place in a world both familiar and unsettling. How did you begin your worldbuilding for the book?
DC: I always envisioned it as a bit of a mix—the lushness of Marie Antoinette’s court, a touch of Japanese Geisha culture, and the darker edge of a New Orleans-esque town. Something sparkling and lovely to lure you in, just enough so you don’t see the danger lurking underneath. And once you’re hooked, it’s too late. I wanted the reader to think, “Knowing what I now know about this beautiful, glittering world’s seedier side, would I still choose to stay here?”
I really wanted to play with the concept of beauty, too, but in a way that detaches it from the norms and expectations of our world. That’s why I made the Gris grey and sinister at birth – they’d do anything to change themselves. Or would they? And the beauty trends in the world go from changing hairstyles and body types, to trying on different personalities and mannerisms.
SW: Playing with skin color makes everything really intense, given how central race is to our real-world politics and power structures. I have to admit that Uglies hand-waved that away, by making Tally’s city “postracial.” To a white guy back in 2005, that made sense in a future that also lacked pollution and war, but it blunted a lot of the series’ relevance to our present day. In The Belles, though, a character having gray skin means they’re not wealthy enough to afford a more fashionable color, which is pretty wild. But black and white don’t mean what they mean in our world.
DC: I didn’t want to bring those presumptions into Orleans. That gave me a lot more room to play with the beauty trends. I also wanted it to be vivid and different, because things shift and change so fast in our world.
Do you think Uglies resonates differently now than it did when it first came out?
SW: A lot of the trends in Uglies, like implanted eye jewelry and digital tattoos, have become realities in the last thirteen years. But probably the biggest difference between 2005 and now is the explosion of social media, especially when it comes to beauty and self-presentation.
DC: Yeah, I’m wrapping up book two of The Belles now, and every turn brings more questions about how we look at ourselves these days. With the boom of social media, the pressures teens face have grown even greater. I’ve already got so many more stories in my head, all set in the world of the Belles and exploring all those questions.
You recently announced a quartet of new Uglies books! I can’t wait to dive back in. What can we expect?
SW: I’ve been thinking about how Tally’s world would have changed in the ten years since her revolution. After she removed the “pretty regime,” unexpected things have rushed into the power vacuum.
Imposters is about a pair of twin sisters growing up in this new world, fighting new oppressors, pretending to be each other, and teasing apart their own identities. The theme is something like: “When you hide who you are from other people, you’re also hiding from yourself.” I think that connects to social media, and also to being queer and not yet out, and a lot of other questions of identity that young people face.
Speaking of identity, The Belles is your first solo book! What was it like writing all on your own?
DC: An interesting adventure. Collaboration can be rough, too, but it’s almost easier for me in a way: I get to hand over what I don’t feel like writing with a note saying, “You do it!”
With The Belles, I could whine to Sona or talk through things with her, but I was on my own for the tough stuff. It was hard. You’ve done both. What’s your take?
SW: For me, collaborations are places to learn more about your own writing. While working with Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti on Zeroes, a lot of my own tics got pointed out to me again and again. It’s a great way to see how other writers solve problems, and then take those tools back into my solo work. I’m grateful for everything my cowriters, and the artists who’ve illustrated my works, have taught me about sentences, characters, and story.
Ed. note: And, of course, this is where Sona butts in to suggest perhaps there is a future collaboration or crossover to be had in these two amazing worlds that both poke at the concept of beauty, no?